I Believed in Shaken Baby Syndrome Until Science Showed I Was Wrong: Waney Squier (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of neuropathologist Waney Squier’s TEDx Talk titled: I Believed in Shaken Baby Syndrome Until Science Showed I Was Wrong at TEDxWandsworth conference. This event occurred

 

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I am a mother, a grandmother, a pathologist and a scientist. I want to tell you Linda’s story.

Linda and James had a baby boy called Tom. He was Linda’s third baby. When he was about four months old, she was alone with him one night. I think many of you may have looked after young children at some time, your own children, grandchildren or while babysitting. Sometimes, you’ve been alone with them.

This particular night, James is working and Linda became concerned about Tom’s breathing. She phoned her doctor and she said, “I woke up to give him his feed and found he wasn’t breathing, not until I picked him up and lifted him out of his cot. And then, he was fine. He’s right as rain now.” But the doctor decided to visit anyway.

He found Linda a calm and experienced mother. He examined baby Tom who had a mild fever and was a bit snuffly, but he found nothing else and concluded there was nothing seriously wrong, so he left. But there was something wrong.

Because an hour later, Linda found Tom unconscious. He was not breathing and had no pulse, so she called an ambulance and he was rushed to hospital, and put on a life-support machine.

A consultant pediatrician examined Tom and found he had bleeding in the retina, the membrane at the back of the eyes. A brain scan showed he had a thin film of blood in the dura, the membrane that surrounds the brain and the brain was swollen. He had just those three things, nothing else.

But 24 hours later, Tom was dead. Linda was arrested and charged with killing her baby. At her trial, Linda was described as a woman of good character, a caring and careful mother. She said she’d done nothing to harm Tom, but she couldn’t explain why he collapsed.

But doctors, medical experts, said that those three findings meant that Tom must have been violently shaken some time after the doctor had left her house. The jury found Linda guilty and she was sentenced to three years in prison. A few years later, she appealed and her conviction was overturned.

So she’d been innocent all along! Her name was cleared, but her life was ruined. Her parents had died, and James had left her. And because she was in prison, when Tom was buried, nobody told her. So she was denied the opportunity of attending her own son’s funeral. But that’s not all.

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While Linda was on bail awaiting her trial, she became pregnant. She gave birth to a little girl, Lucy, when she was in prison. Lucy was immediately taken away and placed for adoption. Even when her name was cleared, her conviction overturned, Linda was not allowed to make contact with her daughter. She lost Tom, and now she lost Lucy as well.

This is not a dystopian nightmare, this is a true story. And it’s a story that’s repeated day in, day out, all around the world. In the US, some 2,500 people are in prison, five of them on death row, awaiting their execution. In this country, we hear the story hundreds of times every year in our courts. It’s heard in Sweden, in France, in Australia and New Zealand.

And what all of these stories have in common is that a doctor has made the diagnosis of “shaken baby syndrome.” In Linda’s case, I was one of those doctors. As a pediatric neuropathologist, I studied the brains of babies who’ve died, hoping to find out why. The police asked me to examine Tom’s brain, which I did. It was swollen, nothing out of the ordinary, but that fitted with what the other doctors were saying in this case: shaken baby syndrome. They believed in it, and I believed in it. So my report was part of the evidence that cost Linda so much.

What is “shaken baby syndrome?”

Central to it is a young baby who presents with one or more of those three features that Tom had, known together as the triad of retinal haemorrhage, subdural haemorrhage and a swollen brain. Remember that word “triad,” because I’m going to be using it again. There are many causes of the triad, but historically, it was associated with trauma.

Now these babies have no evidence of trauma. They have no head impact, no fractures, no bruises. So the shaken baby hypothesis depends on the assumption that shaking is the cause, and that shaking can generate enormous forces, equivalent to a fall from a second storey window or a road traffic accident.

And what’s more, the shaking event is never witnessed, and its effects are almost always immediate. So with this hypothesis, it’s easy to identify the perpetrator.

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